05 December 2006

Tuiran Paloasema

I have mentioned in previous posts that I live in a neighborhood called Tuira, which is just across the Oulu River (Oulujoki) from the city center (keskusta). Ordinarily, I walk back and forth through a series of parks lying on islands separated by rivulets that form part of the river’s delta. In Scotland these rivulets would be called “burns”; as a matter of fact, Finland is a lot like Scotland (starting with the light, or lack of it).

I have written, too, that my block of flats (kerrostalo) is situated on a street called Koskitie, which translates as Rapids Road. Yes, the river used to get pretty wild just at this point, which is why there is a power station across the street from my flat. The Merikosken power plant looms large here in Tuira. I bike or walk down Koskitie every morning past the power plant to Merikosken Street (Merikoskenkatu), where I catch a bus to the university, or else I run into friendly drunks (see the post called “Hyvää Matkaa!”). In the afternoons, I might stop at the Merikosken Grilli for some takeaway stir-fry. In any case, I will give a wide berth to the Merikulma Pub and the rowdy fellows who tend to spill out of it at all hours.

I have written, too, about the museum in the park, the Museum of Northern Ostrobothnia, that contains a huge and highly detailed model of the city of Oulu as it was in 1938, and which I have used to form a mental image of what had been “a traditional ‘wooden town’ in the late 1930’s, a ‘white city’ which had a dreamy air about it on a Sunday afternoon in summer, when a gentle breeze fanned the people as they sat in the lush parks alongside the stream, on the islands of Hupisaaret or beneath the lilacs or rowans on their own gardens.” The source of this passage is Olavi K. Fält, “From an Idyll to a New War,” in Oulupolis: The History of Oulu as an International City (Oulu: Oulu City Council, 1999, pp. 89-108 at 99). All subsequent references are to this valuable essay.

Laying a modern map next to the model in the museum, one can easily perceive that Tuira was completely rebuilt after World War II. The Merikosken power station was the centerpiece of this project. A channel was dug and a dam was built to feed the river into the power station, and land was reclaimed to accommodate Toivoniemi, a suite of modernist high-rises that were built on a ground plan attributed to the great Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto, who also gets credit for a set of fountains that transformed the river into an urban amenity. Officially (i.e., on the maps), this area is called Koskikeskus, Rapids Central, in other words.

I also have written about the footbridge that I ride my bike or walk across when I’m headed for the city center. Actually, it’s part footbridge, part dam. The dam in turn explains why in recent years they have installed a kalatie (fish road) here; we would call it a “ladder” that allows salmon and other species to make the journey upriver to spawn.

“I knew all that,” you’re thinking to yourself. Of course you did, since you are a conscientious, not to say compulsive, reader of this blog. But there are some things you probably didn’t know, because I didn’t know them either. First of all, there is the matter of the “Second World War.” People don’t call it that, because here it was a drama that played out in several discrete acts. The first was the Winter War, during which the Finns covered themselves in glory by repelling a massive Soviet invasion. Those old clips you’ve seen of soldiers in white parkas and skis, rifles slung over their shoulders—that’s the Winter War, which formally ended on March 13, 1940. What followed was a period during which Finland attempted to chart its own destiny while being moved like a pawn in a high-stakes chess match between the Soviet Union and Germany.

The second act was the Continuation War, which followed hard upon the German attack on the Soviet Union that began on June 22, 1941. The Finns now began carefully to do business with the Germans, whose occupation of Norway and whose opening of the eastern front invested Finland, especially the northern part of the country, with strategic importance. Meanwhile, the Soviets metamorphosed into allies of the Allies—that is, of Great Britain, the United States, and “Free France.” And that complicated things for all parties, not least for Marshall Mannerheim, the Finnish Commander in Chief.

In the final act, when Germany’s prospects were looking increasingly bleak, the Finns prudently make a separate peace with the Allied army that was at its gates—the Red army—the terms of which unfortunately required them to disarm any German troops remaining in Finland after September 15, 1944. In the unhappy “coda” to the Continuation War, practically everything north of Oulu was torched or leveled by the Wehrmacht as it retreated from the country. A well informed source with a mordant sense of humor explained to me that while the Soviets won the Continuation War, the Finns came in second.

The uniqueness of Finland’s role in the Second World War makes fascinating reading in any event. But for a political scientist practicing urban history without a license, and one who happens to be renting a flat in Tuira, the narrative is powerful enough to add a somewhat sinister overlay to an otherwise benign and familiar landscape. Olavi Fält writes that by the summer of 1942, Toppila, a port adjacent to Tuira proper, “was becoming the Germans’ main supply port in the whole of Finland. The Wehrmacht placed the office of its commandant and its transport headquarters, patrol battalion and centre for troops on leave in Oulu, and in the autumn the SS troops set up an extensive servicing and training centre in Tuira” (p. 103). On page 102 of Oulupolis, there’s a photo of German tanks rumbling down Tuira’s main drag, Valtatie, which is probably not more than 100 meters from my flat.

Fält writes that the most conspicuous German settlement in the Oulu region was right here in River City; in fact, Tuira was known locally as “Little Berlin,” and it “consisted of 275 temporary buildings and covered an area of 64 ha.” (p. 104). Most of these buildings were easily removed after the war, but one structure was built to last, and that was the German officers’ club, which survives today as the Tuira fire station (see photo up top), in a part of town that has been known ever since as Alppila, owing to the vaguely Alpine style of the club.

Adding an element of surrealism here is evidence that the Germans “brought a measure of affluence to the city. The high wages that they paid and the free food given to their employees attracted people to work for them, and both the City Council and private citizens obtained an income by renting land and accommodation to them and offering various services. All this increased the city’s tax revenues, of course, and reduced the need to raise the rate of tax during the war” (pp. 105-107). Fält observes that relations between the German and Finnish authorities in Oulu “remained good throughout the Continuation War” (p. 104). When it came time for the Germans to extricate themselves from Suomi, that operation, too, was orchestrated by their leadership in Oulu, and it seems to have been conducted in a manner that could fairly be described as courtly.

Completing the story of the alteration of the Tuira landscape during this period is the altogether extraordinary image of “Russian prisoners of war at work building the Merikoski Power Station in January 1942.” At times, there were up to 150 of them working on the project. In the photo that appears on page 105 of Oulupolis, the POWs appear to be rearranging Tuira’s landscape and riverscape underneath what looks like a foot of snow. Believe it or not, these were the lucky ones.

Recently, there has been a flap in Finland having to do with photos of the war in Lapland that have been suppressed for the past sixty years. The images have now been released, and they are not for the squeamish. Some show alleged Russian spies having a smoke with their executioners, and then, minutes later, facing a Finnish firing squad. Bloated corpses lie in the weeds, or are piled promiscuously on trucks. Most gruesome is substantial evidence that cannibalism, especially on the part of desperate Russian soldiers, was “not uncommon,” as the Helsingin Sanomat puts it. One photo shows a pile of human ribs artfully arranged next to a cast-iron skillet that was discovered in a snowbank. Click on the title of this post up top for a link.

Hyvää ruokaa Oulussa, part three

Hei, foodies. It’s time for the November edition of Good Eats in Oulu. This month third place goes to the Merikosken Grilli, mainly for yeoman service in the Cheap Eats division.

On the day I arrived in Oulu, I was met at the railway station by one of my handlers, who predicted, as she drove into my neighborhood, that I would have more than one meal at Merikosken Grilli. She was right. I have found it to be a very valuable resource—in part, truthfully, because it is located next to my bus stop. On days when I stay late at the university and don’t feel like either going into the city center to forage for dinner or rolling up my sleeves to prepare a meal in the flat, Merikosken Grilli is a godsend. Aside from the issue of propinquity, it has its own distinctive merits.

Maybe I should back up a minute. When you are living for an extended period far away from home, you have to figure out how to eat well without breaking the bank. And this can be tricky, especially if you don’t have a fully equipped kitchen. We all know the drill. You stay away from the main tourist attractions and the big hotels. You avoid places that are full of empty tables in prime time. You eschew the ooh-la-la Francophone establishments and any joint that has to advertise. You look for ethnic cuisine, diners, and fish houses—places lying ever so slightly north of greasy spoon territory. You stroll around blue-collar districts in search of that special neighborhood-oriented eatery with six tables, a talented mummo (grandma) in the kitchen, and a big dog dozing by the front door.

That formula works in Italy, but not in Oulu. For one thing, while there are loads of fish here, there are no fish houses, per se. Also, there are no diners, and no Finnish knock-offs of that legendary Alexandria monument to incompetent spelling, the Wafle Shop. Yes, there are the usual ethnic restaurants, and we’ve reviewed several of them in previous posts, particularly New Bombay and Pikku Thai. I have tried four Chinese places in Oulu. I enjoyed the Szechuan chicken at Flavour Palace on Saaristonkatu. At Kiinalainen Ravintola Beijing, on Rantakatu, I had a bowl of scrumptious chicken and mushroom soup, but I thought the entrée I ordered there was only so-so. Neither of the other two Chinese places was at all satisfactory; one of them had pizza on the menu. A new favorite is Pailin, in the Kasarmi area, which could with some justice be called an “Asian fusion” place. Oulu’s smart set meets there on Sunday afternoons.

Merikosken Grilli is about as close as Finland comes to a neighborhood diner. It is run by Asians. Whether they are all members of the same family is unclear, though it seems likely. My hunch is that they are Vietnamese, but there is no telling that from the menu, which is a not-all-that-common blend of blue-collar and international.

Some of the staff members are fairly proficient in English, and when they’re behind the counter you can dispense with the menu. One time I just asked for shrimp fried rice; it was excellent. When the non-English speakers are working the counter, it’s more of a crapshoot. They would prefer to have me point at something on the menu—or, even better, at one of the signs posted overhead to advertise the daily specials. A moment’s hesitation, and they are steering me toward the hampurilainen—hamburger, of course. I never order hamburgers out because I prefer the ones that I make at the flat with high-grade ground beef from Stockmann.

The last time I was at Merikosken Grilli I ordered the Szechuan chicken from the generic Asian menu. It cost 6.50 euros. No matter what you order, the wait is about ten minutes. I carried it home and had a very enjoyable meal in the excellent company of BBC World, appropriately enough.

Second place for November goes to Pizzeria Napoli, another Merikoskenkatu institution. I read somewhere that there are 45 pizza places in Oulu, and I would be willing to bet that at least 35 of them are also kebab joints. And they are all essentially the same. All feature salad bars, where the main attraction is cabbage soaked in vinegar. There will be other things on offer, such as cucumbers, pickles, and maybe bell peppers—even chili peppers, if you’re lucky.

At Napoli, I usually order the #8 pizza, which is a seafood medley. It comes with generous quantities of succulent little shrimp, fresh mussels, and tuna fish. I think I could justify giving Napoli the silver medal on the basis of the fresh mussels alone. When was the last time you had mussels on a pizza?

Pizzeria Napoli seems to be a family-run operation. Dad stands at the oven and is clearly in charge. Like Merikosken Grilli, there is absolutely nothing pretentious about this place. I order my pizza and a nice cold Karhu, then fill up a little plate with cabbage at the salad bar. I pick at the cabbage and read my International Herald Tribune while the pizza is baking. After awhile, the pretty blond daughter with the short attention span delivers my pizza. Every time, I think to myself that I’ll eat half of it now and ask for a box to take the other half home. Then I marvel at how thin the crust is, and before you know it, I’m approaching the finish line. I wash down the last bite with my last swig of beer, and then I belly up to the counter to settle my account—never more than 8 euros. I pocket my change, say kiitos and hei hei, and then I wobble home on my bike. Is this the good life, or what?

The Grand Prize this month goes to Ravintola Matala (see photo above), down on the market square, Kauppatori. It’s actually next door to Kiinalainen Ravintola Beijing. Yes, this place is the anti-Napoli. It is definitely pretentious, and it counts as a Big Splurge.

I had often studied the menu near the front door of Matala, and once or twice I pressed my formidable nose against the glass to check the place out. The candelabras on the window sills were, I thought, a good sign, though I made a note to myself to bring my credit card. I decided this would be a good place to order reindeer, poro.

I arrived at about six o’clock on a weeknight. I noticed that the place was set up for two big parties, and the staff was momentarily spooked when I showed up, with no reservation, asking for a table for one. Soon enough, I was offered my choice of two desirable tables, both of which had been set for parties of four.

My reindeer was beautifully presented—three little tenderloins on a bed of vegetables, with port wine sauce poured over the top. I had spent enough time inspecting reindeer—in the kauppahalli and Stockmann—to know that it is extremely lean. Since reindeer doesn’t produce enough juice on its own, the port wine sauce at Matala seemed just the right treatment.

The meat itself tastes a little like venison. Poro would never be confused with any of the common red meats—i.e., beef, veal, or lamb. The consistency is not entirely unlike that of liver, though it is not like liver in any other respect. My reindeer—I ordered it medium—was served with baby kernels of white corn and a mix of julienned vegetables that included peapods and mushrooms, quite possibly shitakes, though I couldn’t be sure.

Good as the poro was, I can’t say that it was the star of the show. On the waiter’s recommendation, I ordered the cauliflower soup, which was divine. A creamy cauliflower lagoon encapsulating an atoll of fried foie gras, it was garnished with a few sprigs of basil. Bread infused with sun-dried tomatoes was accompanied by Spanish olive oil. The service was exemplary. With two glasses of Kadette, a South African red wine that nicely complemented the reindeer, plus an espresso at the end of the meal, the bill came to 55.50 euros—well worth the money, though not absolutely perfect in every respect. Let us now pick the nits.

I had unwelcome company at the table. I am starting to think that when we are finished with it, planet Earth will be inherited by fruit flies. The problem with fruit flies is that, first, they are very difficult to catch in mid-air, and second, while they are likely to drown in your wine, that is a Pyrrhic victory at best.

The espresso was excellent, with a nice creamy head, but it was not quite hot enough, and it was missing its partner of choice, lemon peel. Plus, it was accompanied by a little square of milk chocolate; dark chocolate would have been infinitely better.

Finally, the background music was provided by a commercial radio station offering an eclectic mix of artists ranging from the Grateful Dead to Patsy Cline. True, it was barely audible, but that is not an acceptable defense. A restaurant maintaining the highest standards in its kitchen needs to have classical music—Handel or Vivaldi, perhaps, but certainly not Jerry Garcia—on whatever one calls a “turntable” nowadays.

Hyvää ruokahalua! Heippa!